Marine Le Pen trapped by Frexit pledge

by Paul Taylor | 13.04.2017

Paris: Marine Le Pen is running scared of her own pledge to take France out of the euro amid opinion polls showing that nearly three-quarters of voters oppose withdrawing from the single currency or the European Union.

The Pasionaria of the eurosceptic hard right, who is running neck-and-neck with pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron in polls ahead of the April 23 first round of voting in France’s nail-biting presidential election, is soft-pedalling her campaign pledge and starting to fudge the timing in response to voter concerns. All polls so far show Le Pen losing to either Macron or mainstream conservative Francois Fillon by at least 10 points in the May 7 run-off. But nearly a third of voters are still undecided and there is a high degree of uncertainty around the race.

Her opposition to the euro and the EU seems to be the main reason why Le Pen has so far been unable to win over the middle-class voters she needs to get from an estimated 24-25% of the vote in the first round to 50% in the run-off.

In the only TV debate involving all 11 candidates, Le Pen made no explicit mention of her pledge to withdraw from the euro or the EU until other candidates brought it up. She stressed it would be for the French people to have the final say after she had tried to renegotiate the EU treaties with other governments to permit France, as she put it, to take back monetary sovereignty and control over its borders. An Ifop poll for Le Figaro newspaper published on March 25 showed only 28% of voters support a return to the franc.

Le Pen came under attack not just from mainstream candidates who warned that a Frexit would ruin households by converting their savings and property into a new franc which would likely be steeply devalued on currency markets, probably prompting Greek-style emergency measures to ban capital flight and restrict cash withdrawals.

She also appeared flummoxed when a little-known nationalist, Francois Asselineau, said he was the only candidate to guarantee a Frexit because he would trigger Article 50, the EU treaty’s divorce clause, on his first day if elected, while he said Le Pen was touting unrealistic claims about the speed and scope of her promised renegotiation.

Despite riding high in opinion polls, continental populists have failed in the last six months to win Austria’s presidential poll or a Dutch general election partly due to their stance on the euro.

Le Pen has said she would call a referendum within six months on whether to stay in the EU after demanding a major overhaul of the treaties to allow national currencies in parallel with the euro, end free trade, abolish the Schengen area of open border travel and make it possible for France to give preference to its own nationals in employment, housing and welfare. Experts on EU affairs have pointed out that such a sweeping renegotiation – far beyond the relatively minor exceptions David Cameron secured for Britain before losing last year’s Brexit referendum – would take years to negotiate, even if other member states were willing to discuss such an unraveling of integration. A vote on Frexit might also require a prior change in the French constitution.

Le Pen tiptoed away from the timetable last week. “If it takes another month, that’s not important, since in my negotiating timetable, the negotiations on the euro would in reality take place at the end of these six months to await the German and Italian elections,” she told Sud Radio.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon